Students in the True Love Waits movement for sexual abstinence until marriage have an advantage over those in secular, often school - based abstinence programs, Richard Ross, one of TLW's founders, said after the March 9 release of a new study suggesting teenage virginity pledges are rarely kept.

Teens who participate in True Love Waits cannot be lumped with those across the board who sign abstinence pledges, Ross noted. The popularity of True Love Waits has spawned more than 200 similar programs, though the programs vary widely in impact, he said, describing most other programs as offering only three or four class sessions led by a stranger, and at the end students often are asked to sign an abstinence pledge in their notebooks. "True Love Waits is completely different," Ross said in a statement March 10 to Baptist Press. Ross is professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Weeks of study and discussion usually precede the signing of TLW pledge cards, Ross said. The promises often are made in public ceremonies with teenagers surrounded by family, close friends and a community of faith. After promising, students receive ongoing support from youth leaders who are part of their world every week, compared to school speakers whom they never see again, Ross said.

"And most important of all, teenagers make their promise to God Himself rather than a notebook," Ross said. "Each of these variables adds power to the promise and makes it more likely a True Love Waits teenager will make it to the altar with purity intact."

Ross's comments come after the release of a study by faculty at Columbia and Yale universities of data collected from 12,000 teenagers ages 12 to 18 who were questioned again six years later. Researchers found that 88 percent of those who pledged to be abstinent reported having had sexual intercourse before they married. The study also concluded that abstinence pledges caused teens to marry earlier.

The study acknowledged, however, that abstinence pledges caused teens to delay the start of sexual intercourse by 18 months and to have fewer sexual partners than those who did not make a pledge. Some True Love Waits teenagers do break their promises, Ross said, but that isn't anything new.

"People are fallible. But the fact that a few default on their mortgage doesn't mean we should stop asking people to sign house notes," he said. "The fact that some break their wedding vows does not mean we should stop holding high the sanctity of those promises. If we stop holding high the highest values before the young, the entire generation will descend into an immoral morass that would lead to personal and cultural tragedies beyond measure."

The Columbia-Yale study also indicated the rate of sexually transmitted diseases was similar both for those who made abstinence pledges and those who did not.

The problem, the study said, is that those who promise to remain virgins are less likely to use condoms when they break their commitments.

"It's difficult to simultaneously prepare for sex and say you're not going to have sex," said Peter Bearman, chair of Columbia's sociology department and coauthor of the study, according to the Associated Press. "The message is really simple: 'Just say no' may work in the short term but doesn't work in the long-term."

STD rates for whites who pledged virginity, the study found, was 2.8 percent compared with 3.5 percent for those who didn't pledge. For blacks, it was 18.1 percent and 20.3 percent.

"The point is, substantively, that if you knew someone who pledged, and you knew someone who didn't pledge, you had no basis for thinking that one of them would have an STD over the other," Bearman said.

Ross said his love for teenagers causes him to be grieved that those who break their pledges are less likely to use contraception, thereby increasing the risk for disease or pregnancy.

"Even so, I cannot possibly agree with the voices calling for us to put a condom in the billfold or purse of every pledger," he said. "That flies in the face of all we know about adolescent developmental psychology.... Handing a condom to a pledger simply says, 'We adults know you can't do this and we know you are destined to live like a barnyard animal. So, when you do break the promise you are making today, maybe this latex will help your odds a little.' At the end of the day, such a plan will lead to more sex with more partners and more devastating consequences than calling youth to live consistent with their highest ideals."

Jimmy Hester, a spokesman for True Love Waits, told The New York Times there is more to the True Love Waits pledge than signing a card.

"Signing a pledge card does not mean you are magically protected," he said. Since 1993, about 2.4 million young people have signed TLW commitment cards, which state, "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."

"True Love Waits is more effective than most abstinence programs that use the signing of commitment cards because it adds an element they lack -- a commitment to God," Hester added in a statement provided to Baptist Press. "True Love Waits would support any program that promotes abstinence, but [it] also would question the power of these types of pledges to shape long-term decisions."

This fall, True Love Waits will launch a new phase of work to challenge communities to provide a consistent message to students on remaining abstinent until marriage, Hester said. Titled "True Love Waits Takes the Town," the new emphasis challenges local health organizations, businesses, educational institutions, government and churches to form a coalition that provides abstinence education and support throughout the year.

"The teaching and challenge to abstinence is not a one-time event," Hester said. "Just like maintaining other appropriate behaviors, it has to be a continuous thing."

Hester also reminded, "The Centers for Disease Control ... said in a report to Congress in January 2004: 'The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually diseases ... is to refrain from genital contact."

© 2004 Baptist Press.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.